Ralph DePalma (72) died in South Pasadena

Saturday 31st March 1956

Ralph DePalma (72) died in South Pasadena. One of the premier racers of the century’s second decade and winner of the 1915 Indy 500, is most famous for his rivalry with fellow racing legend Barney Oldfield. During World War I, car racing on a grand scale was not allowed because of the war effort. However, match races pitting two rivals against each other were deemed appropriate as they provided maximum entertainment with a relatively minimal allocation of resources. Race promoters naturally realized the appeal of starting DePalma and Oldfield on the same line with the same end in mind. Beyond their ordinary competitive relationship, Oldfield and DePalma embodied two contrasting archetypes of the champion. Brash and crude, Oldfield talked as much as he raced, cheated as much as he played fair. He ran his car with an unlit cigar clamped in the back of his teeth. DePalma, on the other hand, was a true gentleman, gracious both in victory and defeat, but no less competitive than his abrasive rival. The match race was originally set for June 23, 1917, but heavy rains postponed the event by a day. This gave the race promoters an extra day to magnify the publicity accompanying the personal rivalry between DePalma and Oldfield that had flared up after DePalma won an appeal for calcium chloride to be laid on the track to keep the dust down. An outraged Oldfield claimed dust was “part and parcel of dirt-track racing.” Later he said, “I’ve been waiting a long time to get DePalma on a dirt track. I’ll show him what racing is all about.” Not to be outdone, DePalma in his characteristic style explained, “Modesty is a word Greek to Oldfield and he’s probably been telling everybody how he is going to make me eat his dust.” Following the heavy rains on the 23rd, the racetrack was pronounced to be in excellent condition. An estimated 15,000 fans turned out to watch the two men race. Unfortunately, the race didn’t live up to its hype. Oldfield won all three heats. His car, the Golden Submarine, was so much lighter than DePalma’s Packard that its speed through the turns more than made up for DePalma’s bigger engine. Perhaps a credit to Oldfield’s unconventional quest for victory, he had chosen to drive a car designed by Harry Miller. Miller’s all-aluminum car had been mocked in the public, but he and Oldfield got the last laugh at the match races. Miller would go on to revolutionize race-car design, as his cars dominated the Indy 500 for over a decade.

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